The spotlight may be exposing Clement
CHICAGO -- It was only one game.
Red Sox pitcher Matt Clement would like to believe that. He wants to isolate the personal nightmare that unfolded yesterday in his former home city in Game 1 of the American League Division Series, the biggest game of his life.
He would like to dismiss the eight runs in 3 1/3 innings as an aberration.
But even he must realize the rest of us can no longer do that.
''I have no excuses," said Clement, in the wake of a 14-2 drubbing by the White Sox. ''I have no reasons. I pitched bad. It's no fun.
''But hopefully it's only one game. This team has a history of being pretty resilient."
Indeed, the Red Sox boast a wonderful and colorful history of bouncing back, but the biggest question this morning is: Does Clement have what it takes to follow suit? His second-half struggles have been well-documented (he lost three of his final five starts after losing only three in his first 27), but it was his no-decision last Thursday night that left me with doubts about his mental fortitude in big games.
That regular-season game against Toronto was critical to Boston's postseason chances. At the time, the Red Sox were tied with the Indians for the wild card, down a game to the Yankees in the division, and had already lost two at home to the Blue Jays. The scoreboard showed both New York and Cleveland winning, while Clement was knocked around for four runs and eight hits in five-plus innings. That game will go down as yet another example of why David Ortiz is the best clutch hitter ever to wear a Red Sox uniform, yet the undercurrent to that thrilling come-from-behind win was the fact that Clement came up empty at a critical time.
The lanky righthander's body language said it all that night. He looked, acted, and pitched like he was tight. After each inning, he walked off the mound with his head down and shoulders slumped.
In pressure situations, you need to at least fake a sense of command. Clement was unable to do that last week, and again yesterday.
Offered center fielder Johnny Damon, ''I'm not even sure who our No. 1 [pitcher] is. I thought [Clement] was capable of going out and making guys look silly. But he just didn't have it. He hasn't had it for the last month."
Catcher Jason Varitek believes Clement will bounce back.
''He's been such a big part of our team," Varitek said. ''If we take care of what we need to take care of, he'll get another chance."
Or will he? Manager Terry Francona wasn't about to tip his hand, but you have to wonder how he can possibly hand Clement the ball in a potential winner-take-all Game 5. The problem, of course, is that the alternative is pitching David Wells (who happens to be 42 and operating on a balky knee) on three days' rest, or yanking Bronson Arroyo (two runs over an inning yesterday) out of the bullpen and relying on Jeremi Gonzalez (2 1/3 innings and four runs yesterday) for long relief. Neither is a desirable scenario.
''I doubt they'd put me into the rotation at this point," said Arroyo. ''They can't really afford to do that. They don't have anybody to go deep [in long relief] except me."
Clement acknowledged his starting role is in jeopardy.
''I'll be ready, whatever the case may be," he said. ''Whether it's starting, or something else, or in this series, or later on. Hopefully I'll get a chance to redeem myself."
Asked if he thought Francona would give him the opportunity to start Game 5, Clement answered, ''I'm not worried about Game 5. I'm worried about Game 2."
In a perfect world, the Red Sox would have clinched a postseason berth before the final weekend and arranged their rotation accordingly. They did not have that luxury, and they are paying for it now.
The warning signs that this would not be Clement's day (again) were evident almost immediately. He plunked two of the first three batters, let up a three-run homer to catcher A.J. Pierzynski on an 0-and-1 count that sailed 383 feet, and had already thrown 28 pitches by the time he trudged off the mound, down, 5-0, leaving his club with a daunting offensive task.
''I thought I had a chance to get out of there with just one or two runs," he said. ''I didn't do it. If I do, it puts a lot more pressure on [White Sox pitcher Jose] Contreras."
Clement's day took a further nose dive in the bottom of the third, when Carl Everett lined a ball off his left wrist and left quad. Clement, smarting from the double whammy, threw a couple of practice pitches and opted to stay in the game.
On July 26, Clement spent the night at a Tampa hospital after the Devil Rays' Carl Crawford hit a line drive off his head. Did he have a flashback after Everett played pinball with his body?
''It does go through your mind, but at that point I was so disappointed in what I'd done, I wasn't thinking too much about it," he said. ''The second half [of the season], I feel as though I've had a bit of a target on me . . . balls have been coming pretty hard at me this year."
He was not using his harrowing experience in Tampa as an excuse. He is far too honest and forthcoming for that. In fact, Matt Clement might be the nicest pitcher in baseball. He is the easiest guy to root for in the Red Sox clubhouse. The problem is, congeniality and gentlemanly manners are not valued traits when you find yourself in the crosshairs of the postseason.
When he finally did get the hook yesterday, Clement, who pitched for the Cubs for three seasons before signing with Boston last December, was given a hearty (and sarcastic) send-off by the White Sox fans. ''Hey, hey, hey, goodbye!" they bellowed, as the pitcher walked off slowly, looking at his cleats.
Clement deserves a better fate, but as Bill Belichick would say, this is no time for sentiment. It's time for the nice guy to step aside and let someone else finish the job.
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.